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The Effects of Color on Autistic Children; Part I: Does Color Matter?

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Interior decorators and psychologists have long understood that colors can have a dramatic effect on mood and behavior, a concept known as Color Psychology. Decorators use color to create excitement, peace, creativity, and calm. Autistic children and adults tend to have heightened senses, and the way they see or perceive color is likely heightened as well due to sensory differences.

The Psychology of Color

The concept of color psychology, or chromology, is a hot topic in marketing, art, and design. It is the study of how different colors affect people emotionally and psychologically. The effect of colors, however, is not a new concept. Many cultures have used colors as a way to heal, and achieving balance in life.

Color Affects Mood and Behaviors

The ancient art and science of Feng Shui, which was developed over 3000 years ago in China, understands the effect that color has on our psyche. The basic concept in Feng Shui is that color affects the way we act (moods, impulses, and behavior), our mental activity, and our physical appearance, and modern psychologists agree. Chromology research is used to design everything from marketing billboards, schools, prisons, psych wards, and hotel rooms. Chromatherapy is a rising field of holistic medicine that uses the mind’s natural response to color as a tool to relieve symptoms of chronic pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia and many other conditions.

Color Subjectivity Across Cultures

Although many cultures agree that colors affect our moods and behaviors, the meaning we draw from colors, and thus the emotions that we attach to them can be highly subjective especially across cultures. A color in one culture can have a completely different meaning in another. Take for instance the colors associated with mourning. In the Western cultures the absence of color, or black, is the color of mourning, but in the East (China, India) people wear white after the death of a family member. Blue is the color of mourning in Egypt and Iran, maybe because it has a calm, soothing, saddening, or depressing affect such as the expression “feeling blue.”

Autistics See Color Differently

Sights, sounds, sunlight, changes in barometric pressure, smells, touch, and colors can have a profound effect on people with autism. Denise Turner, a designer, reported in Color & Autism: Seeing Color through Autistic Children’s Eyes that 85% of autistic children saw colors with far greater intensity. It has also been theorized that autistic people may have a significant increase in color differentiation, explaining the effects small changes in color hues can have on them. This is not surprising when you consider that autistic children experience the whole world with greater intensity than their neuro-typical peers. Lights are brighter, sounds louder, touch is more intense, smells are stronger, and colors are—more colorful.

Although placing “meaning” on colors can change from culture to culture, which can affect the way we feel and behave when exposed to different colors, studies show that our mind has a natural response to certain colors. You may know that blues, greens and purples are “cool” colors, and can be calming and soothing. Browns, yellows, and oranges are warm colors, and can make you feel warm and cozy. But did you know that reds can make your autistic child angry, or even be painful? Or, that white could be overwhelming, bright and hurt their eyes? In part II, Problematic Colors we will explore what specific colors mean, and how they may be affecting your autistic child. Part II: Problematic ColorsPart III: Beneficial ColorsPart: IV: Ambiguous ColorsPart V: Changing Your Color Environment


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.


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  3. …then there are those (like me) that are autistic and colorblind. :-/

    • Hi Jason,
      I honestly have no idea what it must feel like to be color blind especially since I see color so vividly. My surround including color also have a profound affect on my mood.

      My husband, however, is color blind and he says that he can see color but he sees it differently. What he may perceive as red, or orange, I find to be pink. Does it work the same way for you?

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